Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shodoshima, Temples, Tea, and Puppies.

... or, one of the most amazing days I've had in Japan.

{Gorgeous, lavish Shodoshima}

Shodoshima is an island located off the coast of Shikoku, in the Inland Sea. It's only accessible by ferry, and is illustrious for its olive trees, and splendid scenery. I had been once before in August for the Art Festival, but this time was a completely different experience: I was lucky to be kindly invited by my friend Lorianne, who resides (and teaches) full-time on Shodoshima, and played tour guide for a day.

We set out for a hike in the lavish mountains, to see some temples that are part of the island's pilgrimage (Shodoshima has its own mini version of Shikoku's 88-temple pilgrimage), yet not before getting a little lost... which was part of the fun: we braved some bamboo forests and olive groves, and got magnificent views of the autumn colors and shimmering sea. A kind elderly man pointed us in the right direction, and after a few embarrassed laughs, we started the strenuous hike that would take us to a beautiful, colorful temple tucked in the mountains. The Buddhist priest welcomed us and showed us around, and the visit was made complete with a taiko drum performance, chanting, and some delicious olive tea.

We continued our hike to the next temple (after ringing the massive bell), where we met yet another friendly priest and his family, who invited us into their home for tea and cake. It was honestly the most incredible experience I've had in Japan, spending time with them, chatting about traveling, and playing with their adorable pug puppies (they had about eight of them!). We sat around the kotatsu table (a low table covered with a heated futon, to stay warm), and enjoyed tea and lovely company. We left their house at sunset, our arms full of presents (food, souvenirs, beverages), and invitations to come back anytime.

I hopped back on the ferry, waving good bye, and feeling so thankful to be experiencing such extraordinary Japanese kindness and hospitality. It made me sad to soon be leaving Shikoku and the countryside, as I'm not sure I'll ever find that in the city. Regardless, I feel so fortunate I was a part of this and met such wonderful people, and a big thank you to my generous friend Lorianne.

Shodoshima, I'll be back.

{Tully's latte for the morning ferry ride}

{A very merry ferry, complete with rainbows and a giraffe overlooking the sea}

{Bamboo forest}

{Olive trees... on Shodoshima you can get olive oil, olive soap, olive jam, and even olive socks...}

{Even the Shodoshima bus stops bear the cute olive character}

{A citrus tree}

{View of the Inland Sea, and the faraway Shikoku coast}

{Temple tucked in a tall mountain}

{Buddhist priest performing the taiko drum and chanting}

{Temple stairs and a gorgeous view of the sea}

{The house where the puppies live}

{The kind, warm-hearted Japanese family who welcomed and spoiled us}

{How cute is this baby pug?}

{Vivian and Lorianne, exhausted yet happy!}

{The panda ferry on the way back. Pandas and rainbows. I love Japan.}

{Olive crisps and olive jam... mmmm... ferry ride snack}

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Health in Japan: A Survival Guide

{Bursting with health.}

Over the course of living in Japan, you will most likely have to visit a doctor, dentist, optometrist, or other health professional. Getting sick while abroad can be fairly unpleasant, and small matters like making an appointment or communicating can be very challenging and frustrating. However, Japan has an efficient health care system, and I can say I've only had positive experiences. More often than not, the staff thought I was cute and entertaining, and I left rather happy. My dentist even asked me for French lessons...

Here are some things to keep in mind for health in Japan:

National Health Insurance

It is compulsory for most new teachers in Japan to sign up with the National Health Insurance, which is actually great. The first year is rather cheap (around 2500 yen per month) and you can sign up at your local city hall. The benefits include a 70% coverage of all fees relating to consultation, treatment, and medicine. Carry your card at all times, and just present it at the reception when you arrive at your appointment. I strongly recommend visiting the dentist for regular cleanings and even cavity fillings, as it is much, much cheaper than it ever was back in Canada. Insanely cheaper.

Health handbook

Most likely your company or program will provide you with an extensive medical phrase book, which can come in very handy at the doctor's office. Most doctors know quite a few English medical terms, even in the most remote areas (hello, Shikoku). They also usually have English medical books, so they can show you the description and you can confirm the symptoms.


Japan has more hospitals per capita than any other country, and here, 'going to the hospital' usually only means going to a health clinic. Dental and eye clinics also abound, but make sure you research a bit before going anywhere. You can ask some Japanese friends or coworkers for recommendations, and your local city hall can help you find English-speaking health professionals. Surprisingly most offices tend to look a little outdated and run down, but the staff is high skilled nonetheless.

Japanese language skills

It's always best going to any appointment with someone who's fluent in Japanese, or have your mobile phone handy to call the company's office or a friend to translate if necessary (believe me, it can be embarrassing). If it's not possible, most towns (even small ones) provide an English speaking hotline for foreigners, which can be very useful. You can find that information on your town's website. I've used the service a few times, and they were incredibly resourceful, helping me find doctors/dentists in the area, setting up appointments, and even giving me phrase books and maps. In a way I think it's more interesting to go on my own, as I get to practice my Japanese, even if it leads to mini meltdowns.

Keep your chin high

You'll need to stay brave and calm, and be open-minded. Treatments can be different than what you're used to, but effective regardless. And forget about privacy- the whole waiting room and staff will know about your issues. Furthermore, being the sole foreigner in the office can cause a lot of excitement and curiosity, especially in rural towns. On the other hand, it can also lead to unbelievable care and kindness, as most Japanese health professionals will want to make you feel comfortable and welcome.

That being said, I've been to the dentist and doctor in Japan, and I've only had pleasant experiences. It can get stressful since the whole process can be a little more complicated than it is back home, but then again, it's part of the adventure of living abroad...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Around Hiroshima.

When my company asked me if I'd be up for teaching in Hiroshima for a week, I delightfully accepted, since I adore this city... and what's not to love about an all expenses paid upscale hotel, Shinkansen ride, and food money? Yes, please. And at this point, anything that involves getting out of dear ol' Marugame is happily welcomed.

My dreams of revisiting the A-Bomb Dome and once again petting the tame deer at Miyajima were quickly shattered when I found out I wouldn't be staying right in the city, but in a small town of the prefecture called Onomichi. Turns out Onomichi is a slightly more run down and less exciting version of Marugame, but I had such a lovely time regardless. Exploring a new place is always compelling and intoxicating, and I took a small day trip to nearby Fukuyama, making the most fun out of it. I've seen Hiroshima before, so as long as I can easily access Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (with the added noodles), I'll be just fine...

Hiroshima city is wonderful and special, and the rest of the prefecture is equally beautiful: very mountainous and steep, traditional with lots of temples and castles, bordering the picturesque Inland Sea, complete with autumn trees bearing gorgeous shades of gold and orange.

A relaxing few days on my own, meeting some sweet, well-mannered students (a surprising change from my usual rural Shikoku students, who seem to be a bit more rough around the edges and sassy- that's how I grew to love them), and taking in some scenic and quaint scenery:

{Shinkansen ride. The Fukuyama Starbucks had an amazing view of the tracks, guess where I spent countless hours watching the bullets go by...}

{My hotel room. I made a mess on the first day. Thank goodness for the internet and some wine.}

{Onomichi Port. The view from my hotel room. Not bad.}

{Onomichi. Can you spy the castle? It could easily be Marugame!}

{Bright torii gate downtown Fukuyama.}

{Charming little stone-paved streets in Fukuyama, makes for a charming afternoon stroll.}

{Another castle, in Fukuyama I'm starting to think they all look the same... I think I've been spoiled having the Marugame castle right in my backyard.}

{Gorgeous, crisp autumn day on the castle grounds. November is the most beautiful and colorful month in Japan!}

{Sorry Osaka, but Hiroshima style okonomiyaki is better than the Kansai style one, with the soba noodles that add extra deliciousness.}

Hiroshima. Ironically the most peaceful place in Japan, oh so beautiful, unique and charming.

Hiroshima, my love.

Monday, November 22, 2010

My week in pictures

This week...

{Turns out the Gingerbread Latte is available in Japan. Big news for me!}

{Preparing my move to Osaka. What are the good areas to live?}

{Saying good bye to students. Aren't they cute?!}

{Some love from fourteen year-old boys...}

{My oldest, smartest students! I had the best time with them.}

This week has been a bit slow and rainy, but it's been nice. Work, work, work. Gyoza and beer in Takamatsu. Coffee and cake. Bento boxes. Bike rides and long walks. Half of a meltdown. Card games. Movies. Friends time. English conversation club with fun Japanese people (and free gin and tonics).

Now packing my bags for a little escape to Hiroshima prefecture... before you get too excited, I must warn you it's for work. Yet, I am loving any trip I get to take!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Staying Fit in Japan

There are two popular misconceptions about being healthy in Japan: ALL Japanese foods are healthy, and foreigners lose weight while living in Japan. Both are false, although they hold a bit of truth.

Japanese cuisine, although very lean and delicious, has quite a few fattening elements to it: white rice, lots of fried vegetables and meats, loads of red meat, and well, wonderful sweets and desserts and bakery items. As a general rule, I noticed that among foreigners, boys tend to lose weight, while girls gain some. I'm not sure why, but I have a slight suspicion that girls have a hard time staying away from the scrumptious Japanese sweets...

Thankfully I did not gain any weight since I moved here, mostly because I love running and even though I love sweets and baked goods, I balance it out, and I don't drink very much. Here are my tips for staying fit and healthy in Japan.

Step away from the rice

I could survive solely on pasta and bread for a week straight and not gain a single pound, but if I do the same with white rice, I'll quickly get chunky. Maybe my body does not process rice too well, since I grew up on a bread and pasta diet. I'm thinking our metabolism is not used to white rice, so we should be careful and not eat it three times per day. Perhaps three times per week is a better option.

{Ramen... nom nom nom}

(Less) Bottoms Up

If you don't already drink, Japan will make you drink. Not only is it a drinking culture, as most events are centered around alcohol consumption, but living abroad on your own can make you party a lot harder on the weekends. And, believe me, after teaching some crazy classes and dealing with culture shock, you'll sometimes need a (strong) cocktail. Yet, alcohol is fattening, so be careful and limit yourself on the weekends. Also, less drinking means more money!

{Less drinking also means more room for delicious rice cakes.. mmmm... wait... does not make sense..}

Ship Shape

Exercise. Gyms can be very expensive in Japan, but there are tons of other options. Community centers, swimming pools, riding your bicycle, going running, or taking classes. Japan is also famous for its martial arts, so it can be an interesting way to stay in shape.

{Sneakers and an iPod. Go running.}

Snack Attack

With conbini (convenience stores) and vending machines on every street corner, it can be difficult to resist a quick Fanta Grape and a plethora of weird-flavoured Kit Kats (cheese, anyone?!). Thankfully I live in the countryside and the nearest conbini is a bike ride away, so I'm usually too lazy to actually get that coveted candy bar. That being said, conbinis are full of healthy fare such as salads, green tea, and nice bento boxes, so it's possible to make wise decisions.

{Ginger Ale Kit Kat, anyone?}

Turning Japanese

In general, the Japanese lead a rather healthy lifestyle. Overweight people are a rare sight, and elderly people are in better shape than most of us, so it's inspiring. Also, when everyone else around you is tiny, when the clothes are tiny, and the apartments tiny... it's motivation enough. I think it can be easy to remain healthy (or become healthier) in Japan, where sushi, soy beans and green tea abound, and where beautiful mountains only want to be hiked.

{Okay, the Japanese are healthy, but NOT environmentally friendly...}

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What I miss

I surprisingly have not been homesick much at all since I got to Japan, unlike back in Korea. Maybe I got used to living abroad and dreamed of Japan for so long that I got used to the idea of being far away. I do get difficult days when I long for the comforting joys of home and family and friends, especially now with the autumn weather getting chillier and reminding me of home. I've also been away from my family and friends for a year now, and even though it flew by, they're still in my thoughts all the time.

{Happy Montreal times in my lovely Hutchison apartment}

Here are a few things I miss from home, in no specific order:

- Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
- The streets of Montreal in the Fall
- Montreal bagels
- Cocoa Locale, the most amazing cake shop
- Sidewalk cafés
- Going to concerts
- St-Laurent street
- Reading magazines in English
- Going out for Sunday brunch in the Mile End
- My mom's cooking
- My roommate
- Hummus and pita bread
- Breakfast cereal variety
- Speaking French
- Blending in

I don't miss as many things as I did back in Korea. Life for me is much easier and smoother than it ever was in Korea, and I LOVE Japanese food, so I'm quite content with everything I eat. I also make my life more comfortable by not skimping on small household items that make a big difference- such as a French coffee press or tons of blankets. Even though I'm only here temporarily, it's important to make myself feel at home. Simple things like ordering English books online or watching my favourite movies don't cost much and make me so happy.

I also think my lack of homesickness has a lot to do with attitude. Back in Korea, I was trying to re-create my Montreal life, therefore missing most of the elements I didn't have, instead of soaking in the new culture. I learned my lesson. In Japan, I immersed myself a lot more into the culture, learning the language and trying new foods and ways of living, and that makes the whole difference.

I have a whole other list of things that make me never want to leave Japan...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Breakfast in Osaka

... or, how to survive an all-nighter in Japan.

{Guess where I had breakfast this morning...}

Any excuse is good for a little getaway to my beloved Osaka, even if it's as short as twelve hours. Last night was my dear friend Mike's farewell party, as he's returning home after a year in Japan. Even though we lived in different prefectures, we kept in touch and met up frequently, and he and the other Mike were like my brothers, always looking out for me and taking care of me. Being abroad together can create such strong ties.

The sayonara party was done in true Osaka style. On Saturday afternoon I finished work, packed a small bag, changed into a dress, and hopped on the bus armed with some chocolate nibbles and soda to give myself some energy. After all, the previous night was spent at my friend's house, having an impromptu dance party and trying to recreate the moves in this video.

{Bus essentials: snacks, beverages, iPod, tights}

Luckily the three-hour bus ride was relaxing, and what ensued was some Osaka goodness, or as we like to call it, bad vibes: a meet up on the infamous Dotonbori bridge for some neon lights viewing and big city soaking, conbini drinks and style-watching at Triangle Park, a crazy night of music and dancing and being rambunctious and tons of new Osaka friends, and more and more dancing.

When we finally left the nightclub, the sun was already up and we walked the streets of Osaka in search of hearty fare. We found some scrumptious and filling ramen at a little outdoor stall near Dotonbori, leaned over the counter and sipped the hot broth and noodles, then it was time to say good bye.

I boarded the bus back to Kagawa, so sleepy that when I opened my eyes we were in Marugame, and my Starbucks had been left untouched. It was a crazy spontaneous little trip, but it was such a blast. I'm hoping, so so hoping, that it's the last time I make that trip to Osaka before officially moving there. I cannot wait.

Hellos and goodbyes.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Made in Japan: Autumn treats

I may have lied before when I said October was the most beautiful month in Japan. In fact, November is probably the most gorgeous. No rain, always sunny and crisp, warm during the day, and chilly enough at night to just cozy up under a blanket with hot apple cider and shortbread cookies.

Here are the recipes for those nice autumn treats.

Shortbread Cookies

1 cup softened butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 egg yolk
2 cups flour

Mix everything and bake for 10-12 min at 350 degrees F (or um, the lowest setting on your mini toaster oven...).

{I used my bento rice molds to cut out cute shapes.}

Hot Apple Cider

I must give credit to my friend and neighbour for sharing his homemade recipe. You just simmer apple juice, a peeled orange, a peeled lemon (don't cut them up), cloves, cinnamon sticks, and a star anise. We like to spike it up with brandy, which make the bike ride home a lot more um, adventurous.

Marugame is a lot more fun after a few of those.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ask Away

Recently I've been receiving a lot of emails asking me questions about Japan and how I got there, what kind of teaching job I have, and Japan v. Korea. I love, love getting messages, knowing people actually read this thing! It inspired me to put together a FAQ section for teaching abroad, living in Japan, and the differences between Korea and Japan.

So if you have any questions regarding any of those topics, or just any questions about daily life in Japan or questions for me- anything at all- please post them in the comment section or email me directly at:


Monday, November 8, 2010

Cheap Thrills

Another reason why I cannot leave Japan.

I found these at the conbini (convenience store). It's a cup filled with white chocolate Kit Kats (the Hokkaido edition), and it comes with a little package of instant cappuccino. Basically you add water to the mix, then dunk your Kit Kat sticks in the coffee, as pictured on the box.

For under 200 yen, these made my night at the conbini. I have to keep myself busy and happy...

I love Japan.